MATTERS MORE AND MORE
TWO HIGHLIGHTS OF 1997
By Peter Fischer
was an interesting year for mosaics old and new, possibly even an
auspicious one if it turns out that it pointed to a prospect of modern
mosaic mattering more and more.
Luce by Nittolo, 1990
If you have been studying mosaics of all ages for more than thirty
years, you will have seen countless ancient and mediaeval ones at
archaeological sites, in churches and museums on four continents;
but you will have difficulty remembering more than a handful of
exhibitions of contemporary work, although there can be no doubt
that in the long history of the art of mosaic the present period
is at least as significant and as good as its great periods of the
it was a welcome surprise that there were at least two major exhibitions
of modern mosaics in Italy in 1997, followed by the 8th AIEMA Colloquium
which, while devoted to classical mosaics, did not ignore the present.
In fact it was difficult to fit all this into one individual's itinerary,
so no detailed personal account can be given here of the show at
the Accademia Belle Arti in Ravenna, which focussed on mosaic in
contemporary design, such as mosaic-encrusted tables, chairs, shelves,
mirror frames, clocks, lamps and other practical objects.
exhibition in Udine, a provincial capital north of Venice and close
to the Austrian and Slovenian borders, seemed to have a very similar
scope, judging by its unfortunately ambiguous title: "New Contaminations:
Mosaic, Architecture, Art, Design". The connotation with contaminated
food made this sound rather ominous, but in fact the accent was
very much on Art, and predominantly high standard, clearly contemporary
and inventive Art at that. 44 artists, workshops and companies were
represented, among them the Ravenna group Akomena around the go-ahead
Francesca Fabbri, and the Vicenza mega-firm of Bisazza (which not
only produces vitreous tesserae, but creates complete mosaic decorations,
and also sponsored this show).
were in this nest some eggs which were past their sell-by date,
and could have been done without - indeed the exhibition had grown
so large that the lecture hall of the municipal Galleria d'Arte
Moderna, which organised it, could not contain it all, not even
with the addition of the large space of the former church of San
Francesco, so that some of the overflow had to be accommodated in
several small galleries around the city, which obviously disrupted
the impression of the exhibition as a whole.
fact, it may well have been thelargest show of contemporary mosaics
ever presented anywhere, although it was basically limited to a
selection of north Italian artists (and even omitted some of the
best work produced in that area today). But then Udine is close
to the great centres of Venice and Ravenna, and is even closer to
the town of Spilimbergo, where the renowned Scuola Mosaicisti del
Friuli, with a tradition of 75 years behind it, provides graded
3-year courses of thorough training in the various skills of mosaic-making
for artisans, and is now deliberately increasing its endeavour to
promote experimental work by aspiring artists as well. So there
were important contributions to the Udine exhibition, and indeed
some of the best, by Spilimbergo students and teachers, both former
and current ones, such as Nane Zavagno, Giulio Candussio, Giovanni
Travisanutto (who has worked in America for years) and Lino Linossi
(now based in Germany).
in all, the happiest and most encouraging impression at Udine was
that an exhibition quite like this would have been impossible thirty
years ago. Italy, the traditional home of mosaic, had at that time
hardly woken up to the awareness that this was no longer the 5th,
the 15th, or the 19th century, whose techniques and styles could be
ruminated for ever, but that mosaic too could and should enter the
20th century, as it had already done in Catalonia, Mexico and Germany.
There were the world's most accomplished craftsmen, yes, and also
a few daring pioneers, it is true, but nothing like the breadth, variety,
the quantity, as well as the overall artistic quality in evidence
at Udine. Much in favour today is abstraction of various degrees and
types, reinforcing a tradition which, after all, goes back to the
earliest dawn of the history of mosaic; and if the show's selectors
had been trying to encourage such a tendency, would that be a bad
thing? There is also a strong interest in sculptural forms of all
kinds with colourful mosaic skins, clearly following the great patriarchs
of modern mosaic, Antoni Gaudí, and Diego Rivera. There were
exquisite pieces by some of the finest contemporary Italian mosaicists,
such as Lucio Orsoni in Venice, Diego Esposito in Milan and Venice,
Felice Nittolo, Marco Bravura, Marco de Luca and Stefano Mazzotti
in Ravenna, and the Italian trio in Paris - Riccardo Licata, Verdiano
Marzi and Giovanna Galli.
exhibition was accompanied by a large catalogue, packed with information
and illustrations (Edizioni Biblioteca dell'Immagine, Pordenone, ed.
Isabella Reale, in Italian), and by a programme of practical demonstrations
and instructive lectures.
closing date at Udine was just right to use the railway as a time-machine
for travelling back into classical antiquity: to Switzerland and
the spacious and splendid new campus of the University of Lausanne
by the shore of Lake Geneva for the opening of the 1997 Colloquium
of the Paris-based Association Internationale pour l'Étude
de la Mosaïque Antique (AIEMA, see also p.4). Archaeologists
and art historians from two dozen countries (including Russia and
the Ukraine for the first time) met for reports on recent discoveries
and papers and discussions on iconographic and technical problems.
Two of these may be of more general interest, as they concern two
of the greatest and most spectacular ensembles of classical mosaics
and their notoriously uncertain dates.
large villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily was originally thought
to be a residence of the Emperor Maximianus Herculius, and datable
to about 310 AD: but this has been doubted for years. Now a young
German archaeologist, Petra Baum-vom Felde, has had the idea of
investigating not so much the lively mosaic scenes of figures engaged
in hunting, sports and eroticism, but comparing the geometric patterns
with those of workshops in Roman Africa which have undoubtedly been
connected with Piazza Armerina. And her convincing conclusion is
that the likeliest date for the Sicilian villa is around 375/380
even more controversial has always been the dating of the equally
lively mosaic scenes from the Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors:
pieces of no less than 1872 square metres in all, and now attractively
displayed in their own museum close to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
Proposed dates have differed by as much as several hundred years.
Now the leading figure in this 15-year project, Werner Jobst of
the Austrian Academy of Sciences, has looked for evidence in the
foundation layers under the mosaics, and has found fragments of
amphorae from Gaza which he dates to 485/500 AD, or not much later.
Although there was some dispute in Lausanne about those amphorae,
the dating of these magnificent Constantinopolitan mosaics seems
to have reached as firm a foundation as it is ever likely to get.
before the Austrian archaeologist spoke, the only living mosaicist
at the conference, Irene Rousseau from America, used the microphone
to talk passionately and persuasively about mosaic as art, and about
her own imaginative work. Samples of it were on view in a nearby
hall and, later, in a Lausanne gallery. This was the first time
at an AIEMA conference that modern mosaic had appeared on the programme
among its ancient predecessors. Is it too much to hope that even
modern mosaics are beginning to matter?